Just Above Sunset
July 17, 2005 - A Friend Reminds Us What Matters

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Readers of Just Above Sunset are familiar with the photo essays of Phillip Raines, particularly those about the treehouse he built deep in the wilds of northern Florida.  The first of these is The Treehouse, continued in a second piece Treehouse Chronicles, and extended with supplemental photographs in Phillip Raines Photographs.  These are from early August through September of 2003.

The treehouse is in the panhandle of Florida, which was clobbered by Hurricane Dennis on July 10, although things were, after all was said and done, not quite as bad as people expected them to be.

But what about the treehouse?  From Atlanta, Phillip sends this –


I spent yesterday glued to the Chicken Little Channel, or the Weather Channel as it is commonly known. Will this one tear the treehouse apart? Always a burning question as hurricanes meander across the gulf, picking up heat from the water. Flooding isn't an issue for something twenty feet off the ground, but when the trees start that circular motion I think that maybe the sills that are attached to the trees, and the floor joists that are attached to the sills... well, it could all just pull apart, the nails yanking out a little more with each twist. The feeder bands that flop around way beyond the ominous hurricane eye wall are where tornados are usually spawned, and I built my treehouse right where a tornado tore out some treetops. A couple of live oaks right outside my windows had their tops torn off, but new branches sprouted out from the ragged trunks and now are the size of my thigh, maybe bigger, with abundant leaves showing determination to carry on despite the trauma of having the tops torn apart. I talked to my neighbor down there and was told the river is rising rapidly and is over my bench on the dock with more flood water sure to come. By the end of the week the river should be back to normal and usually the weather after a hurricane is breezy and clear and the humidity is low. Perfect for summer camping.

I saw on CNN that St. Marks had flooded and a bar where I have eaten smoked mullet and washed it all down with beer following a long bike ride on the rail trail was chest deep in brown water. I was told that the high-class seafood restaurant "Angelo's" down in Panacea at the coast was totally submerged. It sits on stilts over the Ochlocknee river right as it enters the gulf. The river is only ten feet or so deep there, but wide and rarely floods. The surge lifted the water another ten feet and it broke the glass and flooded the restaurant, knocked a few boats inland, and flooded US 98 that hugs the gulf coast. I use to eat there every trip, but despite it having the best broiled grouper in the land, it became too expensive and, as my kitchen became more sophisticated under the treehouse, I quit going and cooked meals viewing the river. A Coleman hot water thing made washing dishes more possible and now I just go to a seafood store and get all the ingredients to put together a meal that rivals anything I can buy at Angelo's.

While talking to my neighbor about the effects of the storm he told me that he had bought a pile of dead head cypress. Dead head cypress is harvested off the bottom of the river, involving diving down in the black water, attaching ropes and then raising the logs (some are five feet in diameter) using wenches or inflating inner tubes. The fellow he bought them from is covered with tattoos and has fishing lures and beads hanging from his pierced nose and ears. He and his crew will camp way up river for weeks at a time and raise the logs, bundle them and float them down river. Once the wood is milled it is a deep crimson color with streaks of purple and gold. The lumber my friend bought is two inches thick, two feet wide and really heavy, over two hundred pounds for a ten foot plank. It is stacked in a barn now, drying for a year or two before it will be planed and turned into furniture. I hope to take a field trip to his camp and watch the process of raising a log. Absolutely he-man work.

I leave for a long vacation to the treehouse next Saturday. I'm taking my truck and all my tools, along with four or five boys, my dog and of course my wife - who usually does little more than read, paint, and nap, taking an occasional dip in the river. She is amused that I tinker on the campsite constantly while at home it takes an act of congress to get me to fix anything here. I point out that I am not laying brick during the day so I finally have the energy and strength to do projects. That's not the case at home in Atlanta. I hope to send a report from the treehouse next week.

And about all this Iraq mess. Sucks, huh? I read a headline that Hillary says Bush leads like Alfred E. Newman. I look forward to more of that. If they can't paint Bush to look like the fool he is, they need different writers.


Maybe they do, but one must keep things in perspective, as Phillip does here, a few days before the hurricane hit –


... last night the mechanic's shop at the end of my street caught fire. At the height of the downpour from the straggling hurricane, fire trucks filed down my street to battle the blaze. We got five inches of rain, much of it blowing sideways with more lightning than I think I've ever seen in one storm. Hardly a minute with out a strike. I sat on the porch smoking the long stem pipe as the storm brewed. My knees and ankles swelled painfully from the atmospheric pressure. When the wind started blowing the rain on the porch I went inside, then an hour or so later I smelled smoke, only to see the first fire truck. Floodlights washed the front of the building making a brilliant silhouette of the smoke from my backside view. This morning the whole block smelled charred. Standing with my umbrella in the downpour I walked beside the fire trucks, working my way to the storefront. A puff of black smoke escaped through a broken window and creeped toward me like an amorphous curse. Even in the heavy rain it enveloped me and I ran back, struggling to breathe. A belch from a burning battery? A blazing dashboard? Hard to say, only I know it was most unholy. The rest of the fire I watched from my office window. A dramatic image was a fireman's silhouette swinging an axe to punch a hole in the roof. The smoke escaped like a dry geyser in the rain. He reared back in momentary awe, a stream of rain pouring from the back of his hat.

On another sad note the kid pictured on the dock in the treehouse article beside my son Luke, died of cancer as the fireworks were going off on the square on the 4th of July. Went to the hospital Christmas Eve with a vomiting headache and they found two brain tumors. They got them both but his liver failed following chemo, plus other cancers were forming. Put me in the position of discussing death and dying with my youngest son. Hard parenting. Luke thanked me for the conversations we'd had saying that it made him handle it better than most of his friends. Last year I saw Ian every morning as he would stop by the house on the way to school to meet up with Luke. His father, a German carpenter, has handled it heroically, though Luke stopped by their house Saturday night and was way shook up by seeing Volkmeyer crying into his palms. I told him then it was probably a matter of days, if his dad had broken down like that. I will think of him as I dive into the river next weekend from the spot where he sat in the photo. Compared to such grief, we have no problems.


Here's the spot where he sat in the photo, with Phillip's original comment from The Treehouse -


"My son Luke (with the long hair) and a friend contemplate taking another swim. The dock is held to the bank with pointed wooden posts driven deep into the mat of roots and sand. There are times that the river is twenty feet higher than the water is in this picture and the dock is tormented by a swift deep current. It is built so that it is locked around the deeply rooted trees."

Luke and his late friend on the dock...


Copyright 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 - Alan M. Pavlik
The inclusion of any text from others is quotation
for the purpose of illustration and commentary,
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